Why is NATO reinforcing its eastern frontier, and how will Moscow react?

NATO announced Wednesday its intention to deploy a stronger military presence along its eastern borders. What precipitated the move, and what consequences could follow?

Yves Herman/Reuters
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference during a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 10, 2016.

NATO defense ministers announced Wednesday plans to strengthen the military presence along the alliance’s eastern frontier.

The move comes almost two years after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, and then proceeded to involve itself in a rebel movement taking hold in the eastern reaches of Ukraine.

The latest announcement is intended to deter further aggression from Russia and reassure NATO allies. But how Russia will react is uncertain.

“On the NATO side, something had to be done because there’s real angst in the Baltic states and Poland, as well as one or two others, about the possibility of some kind of Russian intervention,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“While the odds of that right now are quite low, they’re greater than zero, particularly for the Baltic states, so it’s important to do something to provide reassurance to those who feel vulnerable.”

There is indeed a desire to give Russia pause, should it feel inclined to intervene in the affairs of NATO’s eastern members.

And the plans take strides in that direction, including a suggestion of deploying 1,000 troops each in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, backed up by a rapid reaction force of up to 40,000 air, naval, and special operations personnel.

“NATO Defence Ministers agreed on an enhanced forward presence in the eastern part of our Alliance,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a NATO press release. “[This will be] multinational, to make clear that an attack against one Ally is an attack against all Allies, and that the Alliance as a whole will respond.”

But this also represents an effort to “build confidence within the West,” as Stephen Sestanovich, professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says in an email interview with the Monitor.

“This decision is only in part about relations between Russia and the West,” says Dr. Sestanovich. “NATO members want to show they can act together, and that their commitment to mutual defense has some practical meaning. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do this without provoking a little pushback from the Russians. The alliance has decided it’s willing to pay that price.”

And what might that price be?

It will likely involve “moving forces from Tajikistan to the western periphery to match the increase in NATO pre-positioned equipment,” Mr. Mankoff tells the Monitor.

In Russia's eyes, NATO is acting aggressively and threatening it with encirclement, so this announcement only reinforces that perception.

Moreover, the actions of the Russian state are not irrational. Rather, as Mankoff describes it, they exist within the realm of “bounded rationality,” whereby, once you accept the premises within which Russia is working, its actions become rational.

There are aims, and the steps being taken make sense within those parameters – to an extent.

And there is the domestic context. The more the Kremlin can convince the Russian people their country is under threat from a hostile world, the less they will care about inflation and unpaid salaries, suggests Mankoff.

In terms of their foreign adventurism, “the Russians have a hard time sometimes understanding they’re their own worst enemy, saying and doing provocative things,” says Mankoff.

“When people react [to those provocations], Russia accuses those countries of 'aggressive intentions,' but the Russians carry on pursuing this path, even though it often harms their strategic interests.”

With regard to any immediate reaction, Dr. Sestanovich talks of “some angry rhetoric from Moscow,” with the possibility of some forces being repositioned.

But, “while there is the potential for miscalculation,” concludes Mankoff, “I don’t think the Russians are intent on provoking a confrontation with the west.” 

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